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May Days and Freedom Walks

May Days and Freedom Walks

Spinozablue welcomes the poetry and fiction of A.J. Huffman and Charles Tarlton, plus new work by returning champions Donal Mahoney and Steve Klepetar.

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The Fiery Trial, by Eric Foner

I’m currently reading a fantastic history by Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial.  It’s a biography of Lincoln in a sense, but focuses on his relationship to slavery and its abolition. Two hundred pages in, I’m reminded of just how far we’ve come, and how incredibly, tragically long it took us to get here. I had forgotten, for instance, that Lincoln’s views — which evolved over time — were considered by many to be too radical, while actual radicals and abolitionists considered him far too accommodating on the issue. At least until 1863. Within his own party, he was considered a moderate, and he worked hard to assuage the fears of the South and, later, Unionist slaveholders. He was against slavery, it appears, from the start, but he was also against forcing the South to give up its disgusting, unconscionable institution. He, along with most in the anti-slavery camp, wanted to stop the expansion of slavery, but were against doing much of anything about slavery where it actually existed. They typically supported laws that empowered slaveholders, like the Fugitive Slave Act, and thought the Constitution prevented them from enacting full emancipation of all slaves. Even after the start of the Civil War, Lincoln tried to assure the country that he had no desire to end the South’s way of life, or that of the Unionist slave states. Though this began to change roughly in 1862.

Those who opposed slavery in America were, until the Civil War, a minority. But those who also wanted to grant equal rights, voting rights, and full citizenship to blacks, along with emancipation were a minority within that minority. A sizable portion of the anti-slavery movement pushed for colonization, in fact, and actually wanted America to remain a land dominated by whites. Lincoln supported this for most of his life. He supported the idea of sending blacks to Central or South America, or Liberia in Africa. It’s amazing to think that even this, when coupled with ending the spread of slavery, was considered too radical by so many. But full emancipation, with equal rights, was a bridge too far for most. Eric Foner does an excellent job of showing the difference between radicals and abolitionists and those, like Lincoln and Henry Clay, who pushed for colonization.

Looking back from the perch of 2013, it seems abundantly, patently clear that the abolitionists, who were hated, persecuted, murdered and scorned in the 18th and 19th centuries, were on the right side of history from the start, whereas Lincoln appears behind the times relative to them. Even within the anti-slavery movement, they were easily the only people on the side of the angels. Those who wanted to stop the spread of slavery were, of course, infinitely better on this issue than those who wanted to keep things as they were. But it’s not really a great moral victory, or a revolutionary change in one’s moral compass, to push for an end to the spread of that reprehensible institution, while also advocating for colonization. As The Fiery Trial progresses through Lincoln’s last years, we will see how far he evolves on the subject. Again, the book is excellent.                         


After the Ides of March

After the Ides of March

April showers us with new poetry and fiction by Cameron Gearen, Damien Healy and Donal Mahoney.

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The Death of Cleopatra, by Reginald Arthur. 1892

I’m currently reading a very interesting bio of Cleopatra, by Stacy Schiff, who also wrote a fine biography of Ben Franklin. She has range.

Cleopatra is a difficult subject for any biographer, but Ms. Schiff does a good job trying to sort truth from legend, and admits when she can’t be sure about certain events or years in the life of the Egyptian queen. We know when she is speculating, unlike many biographers. She actually tells us.

Through page 142, Caesar and Cleopatra take up the majority of the book, and it’s fascinating to discover the various intrigues in play. Opinions differed wildly about Cleopatra’s role, who seduced whom, who manipulated whom, etc. We know that one very famous Roman, Cicero, thought poorly of Cleopatra, but Ms. Schiff shows that he probably had less than stellar (and possibly unsavory) reasons for his disapproval.

The book is a good reminder about how ancient kings and queens often viewed their own families — as potential dangers and usurpers. So there were many assassination attempts by brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers, all vying for the top of the pyramid. Average families did not behave like that, in general, as they actually needed each other, and there was no great prize to be had for knocking off siblings or parents. As F. Scott said, the rich are different from the rest of us, and the royal rich are in another league entirely.

Great power is fleeting and dangerous — so much so, it’s a wonder anyone really ever wanted to hold it.

At any rate, the Ides of March have passed, Caesar is now dead, and the book is dealing with a Roman civil war of sorts. Cleopatra must pick the winning side, and she had a talent for doing just that . . .


Sky Mixing

Sky Mixing

For February, Spinozablue brings its readers new poetry from Breda Wall Ryan, Damien Healy and Donal Mahoney, as well as fiction from Rosemary Jones. A pattern of Celtic voices by coincidence, not design — with an Asian twist.

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 Recently finished Peter Englund’s excellent history of WWI, The Beauty and the Sorrow. What makes this book so special for me is the democracy of voices, the voices on the ground and in the skies, the deeply personal quality of their journals and letters. Englund brings us a mix of soldiers, nurses, activists, journalists and pilots, and tells their stories using their own words and circumstances. We get a vision of the war that officials of that day tried to suppress, as propaganda was thick on all sides and truth suffers, as always, in war. Its first casualty.
Seeing the whole, looking back on the years 1914-1918, it’s all but impossible to see the rationale for the war. The obvious question arises: What was the point? Not the nihilist frame for that question. Not the far more understandable pacifist frame for that question. Not any ideological push and pull. But the thing itself. What was the point? Tens of millions dead; tens of millions of beautiful horses dead; priceless art wiped out . . . with the resultant collapse of economies all across Europe (and much of the world) setting the stage for WWII.
There was no point. And the writers, artists, musicians and other cultural warriors who died because of the war? Known and unknown? Apollinaire, Saki, Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Georg Trakl . . . to name a few of the famous.
Englund’s book also reminds us of the devastation caused by the Spanish Influenza of 1918, with estimates ranging between 20 million to 100 million deaths across the world. Would the pandemic have spread so rapidly without the war? Would nations have been better equipped to fight it if not for the massive bloodletting, if not for their collapsed economies and the critical absence of medicine and medical help?
The war to end all wars.
History teaches us that wars start out with grand visions of heroism in the sun, glorious parades, the heights of patriotic fervor . . . but end in muck and ruin. Nothing is more predictable and few tragedies are as preventable. It’s 2013. Will humanity learn to surprise itself?

The First World War

The First World War

I’m about 50 pages into a new history of WWI. New for me, at least. It came out last year, and is by Peter Englund, a Swedish historian and journalist.

So far, what is most striking is the quality of the writing, its vividness and power, and not just the author’s. He’s selected twenty people from several different countries to tell the story of the Great War, in their own words, from their own point of view, as they lived it day to day.

In a sense, it’s like a good novel, shaped into a symphony of voices, democratic, diverse. In another, it’s like a cubist painting, simultaneous, flaunting its omnihood. Sometimes Englund quotes them at length, using their journals and letters. Other times he paraphrases their writings. And it makes me wonder: has our facility with language declined to the point that our novelists write about as well as the average, educated Joe or Jane from a century ago? Or is it just that the author chose people who wrote solid prose to begin with?

He did not choose famous people, or professional writers — at least that I’ve encountered so far. He chose a host of Leopold Blooms, mostly, everyday men and women, living through extraordinary moments, in an extraordinarily horrific time. But their words evoke the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of war, of exile, of bombs and makeshift hospitals and terror. Their words convey the fear and confusion that must always accompany war. This is a book of immediacy, full contact, not a bird’s eye view of things seen from a distance. We are right there on the ground, in the midst of things, but not in the trenches yet. I am waiting to see how he manages to hew the line he draws in his intro. A book about the Great War, but not about specific battles and geopolitics.

Humans have been through this so many times, world without end. It is good that we read about the lives of the so-called “common people” who suffer through these insane explosions of irrationality. If we heard nothing but the stage-managed cheer-leading from “official” sources, we might never grow to despise war. We might, instead, start them due to their supposedly high-voltage Romantic punch.

More about the book in days to come . . .


Four Dead in Ohio

Four Dead in Ohio

Teenager Mary Ann Vecchio screams as she kneels over the body of Kent State University student Jeffrey Miller who had been shot during an anti-war demonstration on the university campus on May 4, 1970. The protests, initially over the US invasion of Cambodia, resulted in the deaths of four protesters, including Miller, and the injuries of nine others after the National Guard opened fire on students. A cropped version of this image won the Pulitzer Prize.

We do not learn. It’s as if the past never happened. As if the millions of lives lost in war after war after war are all forgotten. And when people in the moment rise up and protest more of the same, they get shot down.

Forty years ago today, four innocent students were gunned down by the National Guard at Kent State in Ohio. Nixon had announced an expansion of the war into Cambodia a few days before, and protests ensued across the country. On May 4th, 1970, the war came home to America. Guardsmen on the Kent State campus fired more than 60 shots, wounding thirteen students and killing four. That sparked nation-wide outrage and the largest antiwar protests to date.

We do not learn. We give endless coverage to tax protesters, and next to none for antiwar rallies. We have a population caught up in a furious debate about health care while two wars are raging overseas and America falls deeper and deeper into the highest levels of income and wealth inequality among all industrialized nations.

Today should be a reminder of what this nation has already been through, what it keeps forgetting, and why we should never go to war again unless there is irrefutable evidence that we have no other choice. Unless we can be absolutely sure of the necessity of war, we can not enter into the killing fields again.

We never should have gone into Vietnam. Three million Vietnamese died as a result, along with 58,000 Americans. And we shouldn’t be in Iraq or Afghanistan now. Too many people — hundreds of thousands if not more — have died since America invaded.

There are few things more absurd than war. There are few things on this earth as evil, ugly or senseless. And since virtually no one but the owners of the military industrial complex ever benefits from war, why do we continue to accept them? Why do we continue to support them? Why do we continue to voluntarily die in them?


Ohio, by CSNY


The Sting of the Sun

The Sting of the Sun

Evolution of God, by Robert Wright

About 100 pages into a fascinating new book, detailing the rise and fall of gods, goddesses, the religious impulse and its repercussions. The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, is a general history, starting from the earliest hunter-gatherer societies, moving into chiefdoms after the discovery of agriculture, onto city-states in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and through the advent of Levantine monolatry and monotheism. I’ve reach the foot of Mount Monolatry and fierce storms are taking shape.

Wright reminds us how much religion permeated every culture, from the dawn of human time to the present. All things were tied to the gods, especially early on in our evolution. The fate of your hunts, your harvests, your health, your personal fortunes and the fortunes of your tribe, chiefdom and city-state were inextricably linked to them. He shows how important facts on the ground — political, economic, general welfare — were when it came to the ascendancy of this god or that god. The quid pro quo nature of that. As in, if a person was seen to have access to a particular god, and good things were associated with that god, like strong harvests and victories in wars, then both the gatekeeper and the god could gain in stature.  Multiply that by many factors when we reach city-states, and whole histories might be revised, destroyed, overcome.

So far, Wright is blazing the trail from polytheism to monotheism, but does not say that it’s a straight line. More like a zig zag. In Egypt, for example, monotheism lived for a brief time in the late 2nd millenium under Akhenaton, as he elevated Aten above all other gods. Mesopotamia came close with the god Marduk.

Wright frequently talks about the moral and ethical dimension in religions from around the world, and reminds us that it existed long before monotheism. Even in the very earliest societies, it was believed that the gods punished bad behavior, that if you did X, Y or Z, they might inflict terrible things on you, your family, your clan. Religious rites were primarily designed to prevent that, to push the gods into allowing good things to happen and prevent bad things. We have not changed much in that regard, even after thousands of years of religious evolution.

Back to the foot of the mountain. In a section of the book that might well stir up a lot of controversy, although it’s not controversial amongst scholars, Wright talks about new discoveries regarding Canaan and the origin of the Israelites:

. . . . If you read the Hebrew Bible carefully, it tells the story of a god in evolution, a god whose character changes radically from beginning to end.

There’s a problem, however, if you want to watch this story unfold. You can’t just start reading the first chapter of Genesis and plow forward, waiting for God to grow. The first chapter of Genesis was almost certainly written later than the second chapter of Genesis, by a different author. The Hebrew Bible took shape slowly, over many centuries, and the order in which it was written is not the order in which it now appears. Fortunately, biblical scholarship can in some cases give us a pretty good idea of which texts followed which. This knowledge of the order of composition is a kind of “decoder” that allows us to see a pattern in God’s growth that would otherwise be hidden.

Meanwhile, archaeology has supplemented this decoder with potent interpretive tools. In the early twentieth century, a Syrian peasant plowed up remnants of an ancient Canaanite city called Ugarit. Scholars set about deciphering the Ugaritic language and combing the earth for Ugaritic texts. These texts, along with other vestiges of Canaanite culture unearthed in recent decades, have allowed the assembly of something notably absent from the Hebrew scriptures: the story from the point of view of those Baal-worshipping Canaanites. And, over the past few decades, archaeology has brought another check on the story as told in the Bible. Excavations in the land of the Israelites have clarified their history, sometimes at the expense of the biblical story line.

When you put all this together—a reading of the Canaanite texts, a selective “decoding” of the biblical texts, and a new archaeological understanding of Israelite history—you get a whole new picture of the Abrahamic god. It’s a picture that, on the one hand, absolves Abrahamic monotheism of some of the gravest charges against it, yet on the other hand, challenges the standard basis of monotheistic faith. It’s a picture that renders the Abrahamic god in often unflattering terms, yet charts his maturation and offers hope for future growth. And certainly it’s a picture very different from the one drawn in the average synagogue, church, or mosque.…


Wright’s book is heavily footnoted, comes with several appendices, and the deep research shows. I’m looking forward to discovering more of it and following the evolutionary road deeper into the desert, to the sea, and into the sun.


Civil Wars: The Mother of all Oxymorons

Civil Wars: The Mother of all Oxymorons

I wrote briefly yesterday about Horacio Castellanos Moya’s novel, Senselessness. It’s difficult to describe, because so much of it is below the surface, though it still hits you in the mouth. The bulk of this very short novel is the narrator’s struggle with his ego, with the things that bother him, with his mounting anxieties, like the smelly feet of a beautiful lover, or the likelihood that her boyfriend will beat the hell out of him, or that a sinister general might do something far worse.

He finds poetry in the words of the K’iche’ Indians (among other Mayan tribes), who have suffered through near genocide and are caught between opposing armies. He relates their horrors almost in a matter of fact way, unable to directly tie what they went through to the overall injustice and the political situation in Guatemala at the time. He almost doesn’t need to. The description of the action is enough. We almost don’t need the narrator to also realize how despicable these actions were.

But why doesn’t he present his opinion regarding wrong and right? Why doesn’t he ever speak in ethical or moral terms? The narrator has no problem being very frank about sexual issues, but he refuses to discuss political and even religious context, even though he is thrown into the thick of both. The project he’s been tasked with was given to him by representatives of the Vatican, and he begins his work in their offices.

My guess is that the author felt it would be more powerful to keep the issue of genocide, politics and even religion just slightly under the surface, because he wanted to hit the reader with an indirect sock in the jaw. A blow that comes from several directions, that we have to uncover, perhaps, that we aren’t sure exactly where and when it hits us. I also think he added to this vague unease and overall anxiety quotient by not locating the book exactly. There is room to maneuver, room to imagine other nations and other genocides, other senseless wars and atrocities. And, because the prose is virtually non-stop, with few full stops, this vagueness and anxiety rush steadily at the reader, never really let up, and keep us off balance with the narrator. The result, at least for this reader, is the desire to learn more. Much more.


The Genuine Article

The Genuine Article

Autumn Woods, by Albert Bierstadt. 1886

 Reading a very interesting collection of essays, The Genuine Article, by Edmund S. Morgan. It’s an historical look at early American life, taken primarily from his articles for the New York Review of Books.

Lots of food for thought. He tells us (indirectly) that historians of that early period have spent most of their time with New England, not because of bias, but because of available records. We are blessed with a huge amount and variety of journals, letters, public records, and assorted written indications of life for the early settlers in the north, but very little for those in Virginia and south of that colony. There was also a difference in family life, ratio of male to female and life expectancy that favored New England. More families settled in the north initially. Virginia and other southern colonies seemed to get far more indentured servants, and then slaves, and far fewer intact families. This seems to have had an impact of written records from the point of view of the settlers themselves. The Civil War also played a destructive role in preservation. The records housed in Richmond, Virginia were mostly destroyed during the war.

Morgan also tries his hand at historical analysis of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem Witch Trials, and the movie made from that play in 1996. He’s highly impressed with both, though he tells us of the historical inaccuracies, but does so gently. It’s interesting to think of Miller’s play in the context of the Communist witch hunts of the time of his writing, and how it impacted his own battle with McCarthyism.

There is also discussion of gender roles in early America and a review of several books on the subject. Without having read the books under review, it’s hard to know if Morgan’s criticism is just or fair, but his points make sense. As when he questions whether it is accurate to paint New England with the brush of a thinker (Robert Filmer) whose major work (Patriarcha) was published in 1680, after the period in question. Or, that the author set up a fair dichotomy between north and south when it came to gender roles. Filmerian for New England, Lockean for Virginia and parts further south.

There is also some discussion of the relative merit involved in concentrating on “ordinary” people (in the southern colonies), their everyday lives, at the expense of big events. Morgan makes the logical criticism that it is one thing to bring those who have been neglected by previous historians into the forefront, and still another to make assumptions based upon very sketchy records. The case in point being Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) and its impact on ordinary folks in Middlesex County, Virginia. The authors under review opine that the rebellion was of very little consequence to average Virginians. Morgan counters with the fact that historians have little to go on in the way of actual, written records for that conclusion. He concedes it may be true. But because of scant evidence, it is conjecture, rather than factual deduction.

The writing is solid. Morgan gets in and out of his subjects quickly, directly. I’m looking forward to finishing it up and returning to it from time to time.


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